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Venezuela Ride

On spring break, car-jacking and the inequities of poverty

By Novella Carpenter

My spring break plans are really shaping up. Venezuela, baby. No, not the northern region with all of those beautiful waterfalls and canyons, and no again to the spectacular Venezuelan National Park. I'll be going to Caracas, that sweaty, seedy city. Though it's not my first choice, and Bill would rather that I go to Death Valley with him, I have to go for a school project.

I'm researching how the government-run oil industry has shaped the art scene in Venezuela. Some of the petrol-dough is going toward building a cinema production facility, literacy programs and, in a strange twist, passing out 1 million free copies of Don Quixote. It's fascinating, and I want to document the changes.

To get myself psyched up for the trip, I rented Secuestro Express, recently released on DVD. It's made by a hot new Venezuelan director named Jonathan Jakubowicz, who just got a two-picture deal with Miramax and is a major celeb in Venezuela because of this gritty movie about Caracas. Bad idea. After the credits hit, I was ready to cancel my trip.

"Secuestro" means kidnap, and the whole movie is about the car-jacking and abduction of a wealthy couple from the streets of Caracas. Almost the entire movie is filmed inside a moving vehicle. The five characters--three kidnappers and two victims--proceed to beat each other up, ingest all manner of drugs and have run-ins with crooked cops. The claustrophobic effect is amazing. And even though I had to read subtitles, I could readily imagine the bad smells developing in that SUV.

Jakubowicz based the movie on events that happened to him. In the director's interview on the DVD, he explains that the film is based on a crime wave that is sweeping Latin America: the secuestro. The kidnappers are often, as in the movie, from poor families struggling to make ends meet. Venezuela is a country with an elite, who often become victims of this type of crimes. The kidnappers target those driving nice cars and wearing fancy clothes. At one point in the movie, one of the kidnappers asks the rich woman why she would choose to drive a late model vehicle and "rub your wealth in our faces."

In the real world, elite families in Mexico and Venezuela aren't--as I would--driving crappy cars in order to hide their wealth. They are now driving armored vehicles, and some refuse to drive at all, insisting on being chauffeured around.

As in the movie, Jakubowicz and other victims of the secuestro, are often car-jacked as they come out of clubs or parties drunk or stoned. The abductors make them drive around and withdraw money from ATMs and buy items at stores. Jakubowicz said his attackers eventually ran off with his car, his cell phone, his shoes and clothes, and left him on a corner. The characters in the movie have a much more dramatic end. Actress Mia Maestro says in her interview that while the filming was going on, a member of her family was car-jacked. Secuestros seem like every-day occurrences in Caracas.

I had the chance to talk to an expert on Venezuelan politics, Notre Dame associate professor Michael Coppedge. I asked him if this movie seemed realistic. "It's a fairly accurate description of how the situation would unfold," he said. "What's misleading is how often these things happen."

So I have no worries in Caracas?

"You still have to be careful. There are some parts of Caracas you shouldn't go to at night. During the day, it's fine--well, there are even some places you shouldn't go to during the day even. But there is a rise in the number of secuestros."


But I wondered, why doesn't the secuestro happen here in the United States? "We have better police here," professor Coppedge said. "Even I have to bribe police in Caracas. They are extremely corrupt." The professor paused, "I won't let my wife watch that movie--if she saw it, she'd never let me go to Caracas again." Billy, cover your eyes!

Rent Secuestro Express and think of me in Caracas--with pity.

E-mail me; it might be your last chance!

From the February 15-21, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© 2006 Metro Publishing Inc.

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